Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The simplest of pleasures

There are times when you come across something so obvious that you can't help but slap your forehead in disbelief. You ask yourself how come you'd never thought of it before.

This is what I found myself doing while teaching a cookery class late last year. We were preparing the ingredients for a Thai curry and because some of the students had never used lemon grass before, I passed a blade (is this what we call a piece of lemon grass?) around the room so that they could all see - and sniff - it up close.

I then showed them how to peel off the dry outside layer, bash the remaining layers with a rolling pin to release flavour and fragrance and then chop it up finely for use in the curry.

At which point, someone piped up that they didn't throw the outer layer away. Instead, they added it to ginger peel and water and brewed a tea.

I immediately stopped in my tracks and did as she suggested, brewing a simple and refreshing cup of tea for everyone.

I've been brewing this tea ever since because not only does it have sharp, clear flavours, I've also found it works wonders on winter colds. A drizzle of honey takes it up another notch in the flavour - and health - stakes too.

So, this blog post isn't really a recipe. It's more of a suggestion. 
The next time you're using lemon grass and ginger, don't throw away the peel.
Put it in a saucepan instead.
Cover it with cold water.
Bring it to the boil and simmer for five minutes. 
Allow to cool. (The flavours will infuse even more)
Reheat for a cup of warming and restorative tea.

A cup of tea: it's one of life's simplest yet greatest pleasures. 

It's up to you whether you choose to strain the peel from the liquid or not. It makes no real difference either way.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The big FAT misunderstanding and a recipe for figgy flapjacks

Fat and the role it plays in our diet and in our bodies has been in the news a lot lately. From the way it's been reported in the media, the current prevailing wisdom is that fat is no longer a culprit in the fight against obesity. We've been getting it wrong all along. The new villains are sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Sigh of exasperation.

There is some truth to this but, as per usual with the way the media pounces on any stories relating to food, it's over-simplified. For years we were told to replace butter with margarine spreads (yuck!) and now we're being told to eat butter to our heart's content. The true nutritional understanding lies somewhere between the two. 

I don't claim to be an expert but because my Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis diet is all about fat, I've done a lot of research into this issue. Based on what I've learned, here's what the general population should know about fat:

1: Saturated fat (the fat found in foods such as meat, cheese, butter, cream, milk and coconuts) is not bad. In fact, a little of it is actually very good for you. But there's the rub: I do mean a little. As always, it's a case of everything in moderation.
(If you've got MS, the advice regarding saturated fat is VERY different but that's another blog post entirely.)

2: Very few of us get enough omega 3 fats from the food we eat. These fats are vital to our body's overall health, especially the strength of our immune system. Most of us know we can get omega 3 by eating oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon and herrings. But with the world's fish stocks under severe pressure and the health and environmental risks associated with eating farmed fish, it may not be possible (or even desirable) for everyone to get their omega 3 by eating fish.
There are other options. Flaxseed and flaxseed oil are both high in omega 3. Flax is grown here in Ireland and it's a sustainable healthy product. Chia seeds and walnuts are good sources too.

3: Sunflower oil, vegetable oil and oils that come in clear plastic containers are generally to be avoided. Although they have been sold as healthy alternatives for years, this is not the case.
In pre-industrial times, oil was perishable. It deteriorated quickly because it reacted to light, heat and air so traders would sell small quantities of oil which would be stored in ceramic sealed containers in the home. 
(You know those pretty ceramic oil dispensers you see for sale in gift shops in the south of France? Well, they had a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one. The opaque container meant the oil wasn't exposed to light. The seal prevented it from being exposed to air. And the heavy insulation of the ceramic material meant it never got too hot either. It wouldn't go rancid before it could be used. The same thinking is behind the reason why all good brands of olive oil - and other oils - are sold in dark bottles of thick glass.)

So, how come oils can be sold in clear plastic containers, exposing them to light for months on end while they sit on supermarket shelves and kitchen counters? It's because they have been chemically treated so that they are no longer perishable. This is good for the companies who sell these oils but not for the people who consume them. The chemical treatments destroy any health-giving nutrients originally contained in these oils and, in many cases, create dangerous toxins instead.
There's a huge amount of reading you can do on this topic. If you're interested, I'd recommend starting with Fats that Heal: Fats that Kill.

I don't want to turn into a ranting evangelist so I'll leave it at this.
- Saturated fat is good for you IN MODERATION.
- Most of us need more omega 3 in our diet.
- Be careful what oils you use when cooking. Oils that come in clear plastic containers and are able to sit in your kitchen for months without spoiling are not beneficial to good health. 

Now as a thank you for putting up with my lecture, here's a delicious recipe for fig-filled flapjacks. It's packed with good fats and naturally unrefined sugars.

The ingredients are simple:
225g oats
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
60g chopped dried figs
60g chopped almonds
100g walnut oil
75g maple syrup

You will also need a rectangular baking tin measuring 23cm by 28cm (or 9 inches by 11 inches)

  • Pre-heat your oven to 160 C/320 F
  • Chop the figs and almonds.
  • Mix all of the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  • Pour in the oil and the maple syrup and combine all of the ingredients thoroughly using a wooden spoon.
  • Tip the mixture into the baking tin and flatten it with the palm of your hand.

  • Cook in the oven for 25 minutes or until golden on top.
  • Leave to cool in the tin and then cut into 9 squares.
  • Enjoy with a cup of tea or eat as a snack on the go.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Great Escape: Christmas in Prague

Well, how was your Christmas?

As you may remember from my excitement before the festivities, I decamped for the holidays this year. Normally, Christmas is a high-octane time in my house with my partner's children, their assorted boyfriends and girlfriends and other friends and family members joining us for a few days. It's always lots of fun but there's inevitably stress involved too. Because last year had been overly filled with stress already, my partner and I decided to run away this year. We shirked our responsibilities and decided to take time out for ourselves, somewhere far away.

We went to Prague for a week and had lots of self-indulgent fun and much-needed rest and relaxation.

It was our first visit to the city (and indeed to the Czech Republic) and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone contemplating a few days away.

Here's why: 
1: The city is very beautiful. Situated on the Vltava River, most of the medieval buildings that line its narrow winding streets miraculously escaped the devastation of WWII and there are architectural delights everywhere. From a fairytale castle that dominates the entire city to Art Nouveau buildings that rival Paris and even Communist and Cubist styles; your eyes will constantly boggle. 

2: The people are friendly. Prague relies hugely on tourism, which means that people in bars, restaurants, hotels and shops speak good English and everyone we met was super smiley and eager to chat.

3: It's very affordable. 
Even though Prague has got more expensive in recent years, it's still possible to enjoy good food and great beer and to stay in a quality hotel for a fraction of the cost that you would pay in Ireland.

If you're thinking of visiting, here are some of the things that we enjoyed best while we were there:

Wandering around the Jewish Quarter of the city
Tip: if you're planning on visiting the Jewish Cemetery, don't queue at the main entrance. There's an office just around the corner where you'll be served much more quickly. You can buy a seven-day ticket here which covers entry to the Spanish Synagogue as well as several other locations. We visited the cemetery and the synagogue and enjoyed both.

The Jewish Cemetery: a place that resonates with history
The Spanish Synagogue
Relaxing in our lovely hotel
We stayed in the Hotel Maximilian in the Jewish Quarter where we enjoyed a fantastic standard of service. Our rooms were comfortable. The staff couldn't have been more helpful. The breakfast was amazing and served until 11.30am every day (12.30 at weekends). We also booked one of their pamper packages which meant that we enjoyed a massage followed by champagne on one of our evenings there - bliss!

Taking a tour with Sandeman's Free Prague Tours
Our tour guide was an experienced theatre actor with a passion for Kafka and he brought the history of this centuries-old city vividly to life. (Just in case you think these tours are free: they're not. It's simply that there is no set fee. You pay what you think the tour is worth.)

Visiting the John Lennon Wall, cooking sausages over a brazier and exploring the Kampa area
We both love John Lennon and the Beatles so we made a pilgrimage to this wall which has assumed great significance in Prague over the years. In 1980, when John Lennon died and Prague was still behind the Iron Curtain, someone posted Lennon-inspired graffiti promoting peace and freedom. This was seen as a challenge to the authorities and was quickly painted over, but just as quickly replaced. The tradition continued and people add their thoughts and images to this day. We both made sure to add some artistic creations of our own. 

It was cold as we made our way to the wall and we saw a café with braziers outside selling sausages. So, we bought a sausage and cooked it on a fork over the fire. This was actually at lunchtime on Christmas Day, so you could say that charred sausage was our Christmas lunch!

Spending a few hours in the Mucha Museum
Czech artist Alphonse Mucha was one of Europe's most respected and creative Art Nouveau artists and this simple museum contains many captivating examples of his work. If you like Art Nouveau, prepare to be inspired!

The food and the beer
As you might have already anticipated, we made sure to treat ourselves to lots of good food. We tried Czech specialities such as Prague ham, goulash and dumplings from food stalls at the Christmas markets and from some of the many excellent restaurants in the city. 

These are the ones we liked best:

Sansho: this trendy eatery is a casual place where the emphasis is on creative cooking using fresh Asian-inspired flavours. We loved all the savoury food but weren't as impressed by the desserts

Cotto Crudo: this fancy Italian is located in the Four Seasons Hotel, which gives you some indication of the fine dining on offer.

Kampa Park: we went here for dinner on Christmas Day (well, we needed something substantial after our lunch of shared sausage !) and absolutely loved it. The food is fantastic. The service is professional and friendly. And the views (make sure you get a seat on the terrace under Charles Bridge) are stunning.

This was the view from our dining table
Lokal: a modern take on a traditional Czech tavern - great food made from quality ingredients, lots of good beer on tap and plenty of raucous conversation.

These are some of the many things we loved about Prague - a city that made Christmas 2014 truly special.

And because we skipped Christmas this year, I'm hoping that the excitement and novelty of next year's festivities will override any potential stress involved!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Wishing you all the merriest of Christmas holidays

Nollaig faoi shéan agus faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

This is an Irish saying which loosely translates as a blessing of hope and happiness at Christmas and it's something I'd like to wish everyone who takes the time to visit my little corner of the internet. I hope you all enjoy something delicious to eat and the convivial company of family and friends this festive season.

Christmas is going to be a little different for me this year as my partner and I are shirking all of our usual responsibilities and running away to Prague for a week. (We're leaving tomorrow - eek!) I'm very excited and rest assured that I'll tell you all about it when I return.

In the meantime, stay well and happy.

Nollaig shona ón nDaingean 
Happy Christmas from Dingle

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Comfort eating, vegan style

Our house is right by the sea. There's just one small green field between it and the Atlantic Ocean. It might sound idyllic and sometimes it is. But other times, it can be ferocious.

Here's what it has looked like from my office window a lot lately. 

That's rain lashing at the window. Those are the white crests of waves pummelling the shoreline all along the bay. And that reflected light on the right side of the photo is a lamp on my desk, the illumination from which was badly needed as the sky was dark and heavy with clouds outside. (To shatter your idea of the idyll of living on the coast even further: this photo was taken at 12 noon!)

On days like this, a body calls out for comfort food. But when you're following what amounts to a vegan diet that includes fish, comfort food can be hard to find. (Think about it: don't most of our most comforting dishes include dairy? Mac and cheese, fish pie with creamy mash, apple crumble, chocolate cake - now I'm just torturing myself!)

Thankfully, my experiments in the kitchen have turned up some alternatives that are just as comforting and yet follow the principles of the OMS diet. This vegan cottage pie with North African spicing is one of them. It doesn't try to be a substitute for a classic, it just feels like a whole new dish to enjoy in the dark days of winter.

Vegan cottage pie with Moroccan spicing - serves 4

200g dried green speckled lentils*
500g sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 3 to 4cm cubes
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely (I used smoked garlic but regular garlic is fine)
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 large red pepper, cut into 1cm chunks
1 leek, peeled of its outer layers, halved lengthwise and chopped into 0.5cm slices
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil
2 teaspoons ras al hanout*
1 teaspoon cumin
1 400g can of chopped or peeled tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Start by preparing the vegetables (sweet potatoes, red onion, celery, garlic, chilli, red pepper and leek).
  • Pre-heat your oven to 200 Celsius/400 F/Gas Mark 6.
  • Cover the lentils in cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. Reduce the heat. Cover the pot and simmer for a further 15 to 20 minutes, until the lentils have softened.
  • Meanwhile cook the sweet potatoes. Cover with lightly salted cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes or until soft.
  • Place a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the rapeseed oil, chopped onion, carrot and celery. Cook for three minutes.
  • Add the garlic and chill and cook for a further two minutes.
  • Add the red pepper, leeks, cooked lentils and spices and cook for another three to four minutes. (If you're using canned lentils, they get added at this point too.)
  • Now add the can of tomatoes and the salt and cook for a further ten minutes. (If you're using whole tomatoes, you'll have to make sure you break those down using your wooden spoon.)
  • Get to work on your sweet potatoes while your lentil mix is bubbling away. Mash them with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
  • Taste both the lentil mix and the sweet potatoes to make sure you're happy with the seasoning and then pour the lentils into an oven-proof dish. Top with the sweet potato, spreading it out evenly with a fork.
  • Place in the oven and cook for 20 minutes.

* Tinned lentils work in this recipe too.

* Ras al hanout is a Moroccan spice blend that you'll find for sale in the spice section of most large supermarkets.

PS: Just in case you think living along the Irish Atlantic coast is all about darkness and harsh weather, we get days like this too.

Those days demand a different dinner!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

An immodestly good cake

I was always good at school and did well in exams. Growing up in the 1980s, the Dingle Peninsula was a much more tightly-knit place than it is today. So tightly-knit that a lot of people were curious as to how well I would do in my Leaving Certificate (the final exam we sit at secondary school and the one that determines our place at university here in Ireland).

I was delighted with my results when I received them. Years of hard work and study had paid off. Yet I was a little confused when various neighbours commiserated with me in the following days.

Where were the congratulations? Why did they think I needed consoling?

My mother was getting the same reaction and was confused too. However, she eventually figured out that it was all my father's fault...

My father is the most modest man I have ever met. Nothing in his being will ever allow him to boast about anything. When people asked him about my exam results, his response was to say that I had done 'alright'. Understandably, they interpreted this to mean that he (and therefore I) was disappointed. After all, proud parents shout about their children's achievements from all available rooftops, don't they? 
That's definitely not the case with my almost-pathologically modest father...

You're probably wondering what this has to do with cake. Well, I'm about to commit a cardinal sin in my dad's book by saying that this is one of the best cakes you'll ever make.

It's inspired by a trip I took to Brother Hubbard Café on Capel Street in Dublin at some stage last year (a café that is well worth checking out if you want lunch or a snack made from quality, Irish and seasonal ingredients the next time you're in town).
When I visited, I tried their almond and orange buns topped with dark chocolate. These burst with citrus flavour and the chocolate added a touch of luxury. They were moist and gluten free and I immediately set about making my own version as soon as I got home.

After some experimentation, I came up with a cake instead of buns and put it on the menu in my café. It was a hit with customers and (whisper it) I think it's just as good as the buns in Brother Hubbard's. (Sorry for the immodesty, Dad!)
Don't worry: there's a reason why it's only decorated on one side!
Here's what you need to make it:
2 oranges,
5 eggs,
300 grams caster sugar 
250 grams ground almonds 
1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Place the two oranges in a saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for one hour.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius/350F/Gas mark 4.
  • Butter the base of a 26-cm round tin and line with parchment paper.
  • Chop your cooked oranges. I prefer to do this in the food processor but if you'd like chunkier pieces of orange in your cake, it's best to use a knife. Just be careful you don't lose too much of that precious juice!
  • Beat the eggs and the sugar for approximately two minutes, until well combined and frothy.
  • Add the chopped oranges and beat again.
  • Then add the ground almonds and baking powder and combine thoroughly.
  • Pour your mixture into your prepared tin and cook for 30 to 40 minutes. Check after 30 minutes as some ovens will bake this cake more quickly than others. The cake should be golden brown in colour and set in the middle. An inserted skewer should come out damp, not sticky.
  • Allow the cake to cool in its tin while you prepare the topping.
To decorate:
100 grams chocolate (I find 50 to 60% cocoa best )
60ml cream
Zest of half an orange
Flaked almonds
  • Break the chocolate into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the cream.
  • Place over a low heat and stir with a spatula. Don't be tempted to leave the stove while this is cooking. It could burn before you know it.
  • Once the chocolate has melted and combined with the cream into a glossy ganache, remove the cake from its tin and take off the parchment paper. Place on a cake plate and spread the ganache over the top. 
  • Sprinkle the flaked almonds and the orange zest over the ganache and leave to set before digging in.
Some people prefer this cake without any icing at all. They do so for several reasons. The absence of chocolate and cream makes it dairy free. And those who like pure clean flavours enjoy the strong orange taste without the distraction of chocolate.

Because I don't eat dairy and because I was bringing this cake to my sister's house where her daughter also avoids dairy, I only decorated one half of it.

A cake to suit all tastes
However, when we got there, my niece was much more interested in playing with our dog Jimmy than she was in eating cake.

Jimmy and Hannah: besties - at least some of the time!
Meanwhile, the adults got momentarily sidetracked by the prospect of meeting the newest addition to the family, my one-week-old nephew Conor.

Can you believe anyone's hand could be so small?
The lure of the cake did eventually drag us back though. It's that good! 
(Sorry, Dad!)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bye bye Dingle Food Festival and the last days of summer. Hello winter and French onion soup.

Phew! The whirlwind that was the Dingle Food Festival is finally over and having baked hundreds (upon hundreds) of cupcakes, brownies and sweet treats and then manned my stall selling them over the course of three days, my tired body and frazzled mind have eventually recovered.

This year's food festival coincided with a definite change in the seasons. Before the festival, we were still wearing summer clothes and sandals but a storm hit on Sunday afternoon. The wind rose. The canopies covering our market stalls threatened to take off and had to be weighed down. Rain poured out of the skies. Thunder and lightening joined the fray. And since then, everyone has wrapped up in their winter woollies.

As the seasons change, so do our appetites. We yearn for foods that comfort, warm and nourish us through the cold days of winter. French onion soup is just such a food. I know there are lots of recipes for this soup out there but this one is suitable for my diet (and therefore for vegetarians and vegans too). It's not quite the same as the classic version that uses beef stock but rest assured that it's just as delicious!

This soup is traditionally served with melted cheese toasts but because I can no longer eat dairy, I find that anchovy toasts made an equally savoury accompaniment. The deep saltiness of the anchovy works really well against the sweetness of the onions.

French onion soup
6 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon of sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups/2 litres of vegetable stock
½ cup/125ml of dry vermouth or dry white wine
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon of thyme
At least one teaspoon of salt and lashings of freshly-ground pepper

At least one slice of good bread and two anchovies per person
  • Place a heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the olive oil and then the onions.
  • Sauté the onions for ten minutes.
  • Add the sugar to help with the caramelisation process.
  • Sauté for a further 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Essentially, what you want is for your onions to be browned, but not burned.
  • Add the minced garlic and sauté for one minute.
  • Add the stock, vermouth, bay leaf and thyme. Partially cover the saucepan and stir until the flavours are well developed, about 30 minutes.
  • Season with salt and pepper. You'll have to trust your judgment on this. Add the teaspoon of salt and several grindings of pepper; mix; then taste. Add more if you think it will benefit the soup. Remember that salt works by bringing out flavour so a little extra might be just the thing.
  • To make the toast, brush the slices of bread with a little olive oil and toast both sides under a hot grill. Lay the anchovies on top and cut into soldiers.
  • Enjoy

This makes more than two litres of soup but I've found that you can almost never make enough soup. Having a pot on the go means that you're sorted when it comes to quick weekday lunches and snacks and most soups - especially this one - benefit from sitting around for a day or two. The flavours get deeper and richer and better and better.